5 takeaways from Australia's returned volunteer conference

An Australian volunteer (left) helped with sorting and cataloging at the National Library of Cambodia. Photo by: Kevin Evans / DFAT / CC BY

Australia has a 64-year history of utilizing volunteers in its aid program that has inspired similar programs in New Zealand, Canada and the United States, according to the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

Still, the Australian Volunteers for International Development program is just a small piece of Australia’s aid program, and the value — both for volunteers and developing country partners — has not been widely discussed. A new annual conference is hoping to change that, bringing rigor, innovation and inspiration to the program.

On Dec. 3 and 4, returned volunteers gathered in Melbourne for their inaugural event, Valuing Volunteers — Bridge Builders and Change Makers. Devex was there, speaking to experts, officials and volunteers. Here are five key takeaways.

1. Volunteers can make a big difference in a small setting.

Building relationships on the ground is vital to any development intervention, and volunteers are an ideal conduit for many organizations, academic research presented at the conference found.

Volunteers had a key role in building partnerships in projects aimed at the Sustainable Development Goals, a three-year study by Flinders University concluded. The study, which aimed to fill the gaps in understanding impacts of volunteer programs, surveyed 500 people involved in the program as volunteers, as well as host organizations, industry partners and government officials. It found relationship and capacity building to be the program’s key strength.

Local host NGOs often prefer a volunteer over a consultant who would fly in and fly out, said Susan Schech, associate professor of international development at Flinders University, which conducted the survey in association with the University of Manchester and National University of Singapore.

Australia aid minister on International Volunteer Day and the future of regional assistance

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific, sat down with Devex to discuss volunteers and issues affecting the aid program.

“With the volunteer, they become part of the team and work with the host organization,” she told Devex. “It’s more of a collaboration and relationship and their level of income [is] similar.”

Volunteering can also be seen as a form of public diplomacy toward aid-receiving countries. “It’s not about being a tool of government for government policy making or to get people behind government policies,” Schech said. “It’s about increasing the understanding about other people, other cultures, issues in other countries and our similarities.”

Peter Devereux, from the sustainable policy unit at Curtin University, reached similar conclusions in his research, he told Devex.

“One of the good things about Australia’s volunteer program has been the people to people side of it,” he said. “That makes a bigger difference than thinking of the technical impact on development alone. In fact the technical side of projects are enhanced by the people side.”

2. Seeing is believing.

Australia’s volunteer program can take ordinary Australians out of their comfortable lives, giving them a reality check on the conditions people living in developing communities face on a daily basis. Participating directly in those struggles can give volunteers perspective — and a purpose.

World Vision ambassador and Australian endurance athlete Samantha Gash told the conference of her own experience seeing development challenges first hand. Between August and November, she undertook an epic, 77-day, 3,253 kilometer journey running across India to highlight the barriers to quality education for children around the world. While she wasn’t an Australia-sponsored volunteer, her experience had many parallels.

“Some kids walk 10 kilometers to school each way in temperatures up to 40 degrees [Celsius] with humidity up to 67 percent,” she told the audience. “I could understand that because I was running three times that distance each day in those conditions.”

Her struggles as a physically fit adult with a support network ensuring she ate well, slept well and had medical support posed important questions for how children coped.

“What must it possibly be like for a 6-year-old child to have to walk 20 kilometers to go to school?” Gash asked. “What must it be like for their brains? What must it be like for their bodies?”

Travelling through 18 World Vision projects as part of the run, Gash narrated her journey for an online audience. Speaking to volunteers, she said it was important to use one’s talents and skills — in her case physical endurance — to make change.

3. Volunteering inspires new enterprise.

Returned volunteers told Devex how their experiences had changed their perspectives, careers and views of the world. Some chose to volunteer multiple times or seek careers in development. At least 16 former volunteers came back from volunteering inspired to found startups, news NGOs or other communities.

During Christine Parfitt’s volunteer experience in Indonesia, she noticed discarded plastic cups cluttering the country’s waterways. Upon her return, she founded Bottle for Botol, aiming to replace plastic cups with reusable bottles for school children.

Pierre Johannessen volunteered in Bangladesh in 2007, working on programs to fight youth poverty and overcome social disadvantage. A year later, he created Big Bang Ballers, which uses basketball to empower young men and women and helps them with school supplies, food, and medical care. So far it has reached 50,000 youth in 12 countries.

Climates is another volunteer-inspired startup, founded by Jarrod Troutbeck after he returned from Tonga. The community platform aims to help local residents and stakeholders act on their own behalf to combat the challenges of climate change.

Despite the different goals of startups, there was one common message: The reality of living in developing countries gave volunteers both the drive and the ideas to continue making a change upon their return home.

4. Volunteer programs can test unique development approaches.

Volunteer programs are the original risk takers of Australian aid. Even as the country's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has sought to expand innovation, through programs such as InnovationXchange and greater private sector engagement, the smaller-scale interventions in volunteer projects can often nimbly push new ideas.

One examples comes from the Disability Empowerment Skills Exchange, which sent five blind volunteers to Fiji with a deaf leader to work on policies and programs for greater engagement with people with disabilities in Fiji. The pilot project exceeded expectations and demonstrated how people with disabilities can uniquely contribute as volunteers. A second project will take place in 2017.

David Lipson, political correspondent with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., also spoke about his yearlong project in 2006 hosting a children’s television program in Mongolia.

“Did it achieve or make any progress on the Millennium Development Goals at the time?” Lipson asked conference attendees. “Probably not. We did have a lot of fun and we did try to encourage learning English and getting in the classroom.”

These small-scale volunteer initiatives are a venue where Australian aid can experiment, and possibly fail, in exploring new ways of achieving development outcomes and creating stronger ties between Australia and developing nations.

5. Everyone can make a difference.

A key message of the conference was that anyone has the potential to make a difference. Change starts with taking a passion or talent and putting it to use.

Dr. David Chong, a Melbourne-based plastic surgeon, spoke of his work with Operation Smile to transform the lives of people born with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial conditions in developing countries.

“Facial deformity, that is my passion,” he said. “To take away the pain of not knowing a smile and to understand the scar we often don’t see is the worst kind and the hardest to treat. I really do firmly believe in serendipity. Even in this very moment that lives collide with each other, the randomness of how we meet each other. And in the end, what’s left behind is the magic. The influence we have on one another’s lives.”

No doctorate is required to have a skillset that’s needed within developing countries. Volunteers spoke to Devex about being “generalists” before their assignments. Some entered the program immediately after graduating from university. Some took a gap year or volunteered mid-career. And some were retired and ready to give back.

A willingness to make a difference and learn from developing countries was the main prerequisite.

Devex is a media partner for the Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.